Last Week saw famed Manchester and now Soho menswear shopkeepers Oi Polloi officially release their NPC ii Collaboration with Reebok Classics. Our intrepid reporter GregK went to the release party to talk to store founders Nigel and Steve about the shoe and how it came about, as well as how they got working with Vermont-born photographer Alex Hulsey on the lookbook, which depicts a day out for a young lad in Reebok’s hometown of Bolton.
This is the first Oi Polloi collaboration since coming to London right? How do you think that fits into the picture?
Nigel Lawson: It’s important to have a product that’s relevant and creates a little bit of hype. It’s an exciting time for us as well and I think it’s turned out as a cool product to kick things off.
And you’ve got a big identity up north as well within Manchester. Has there been any aspect of having to translate that identity for London or take a new approach to a different customer?
NL: A bit of both, to be honest.
Steve Sanderson: Our biggest customer base is actually in London, so before we even came down our online business was thriving here. It’s one of those places that attracts people and perspectives from all over the world. Even down here, a lot of the people in London aren’t even from London, so when you think about it like that I’m not even sure what a “London person” is, you know what I mean?
NL: At one point over half of our online business was London. At another point over half has been international, you know? These things filter down and through; of course the Manchester store is mainly people from Manchester and the surrounding areas, but we’ve got interest from all over the place and a London store just made a lot of sense.
You hear a lot of stories from back in the earlier days about kids taking trips down to London to check out the shops and get a taste of the city.
NL: Early doors for me was sort of ’87, ’88. You remember Hacienda and that, Duffer was on D’Arblay Street with that crossover between American hunting and sportswear, superstars first started appearing and that. Yeah, for sure, you’d come down to London, check out Kings Road looking for Ralph. Duffer on D’Arblay Street was an amazing store. You’d come out, you wanted to look different to everyone else, you’d come down and find something.
And how did the photoshoot come about with Alex, did the idea for the shoot follow the shoes or vice versa?
NL: The shoes came first. We’ve been selling all white tennis shoes for a while and doing really well with them. Back in ’89-’91 there was this move away from the Converse and Acid House look and the casual tennis shoes were coming in. I’ve got an old pair of these NPC ii’s from then and they hadn’t been used by Reebok in years. I just saw a connection between those shoes and their style and everything that’s doing so well right now but nobody seemed to have seen that shoe. Pulled it out, gave it to Reebok and nine months later, there they are. It really is just a classic Reebok with a slight variation. Reebok does the classic all-white court shoe so well. They’ve got a whole battalion of these court shoes.
It seemed to suit Oi Polloi a lot, at a time when every other store is doing a Reebok Ventilator—
NL: Multi-colored fucking variations on a theme.
Ventilator, Ventilator, Ventilator, and then Oi Polloi just goes, ‘This is a shoe that nobody knows, you might not even care, but we felt like making it, so we did.’ And all the feedback has been so positive.
NL: And if you talk about Oi Polloi on the “big sneaker” side, you know we’ve got probably 3% of the selection that the other guys of got. But all those guys are now going, ‘Oi Polloi’s doing something different’, but what are we even doing? All we’re really interested in is simple styles, simple colours, that simple statement that will always be more important than the hype. It’s the thing that you’ll see most guys walking down the road wearing. If we don’t like it, we won’t get it. I mean some of these shoes, I don’t even know what the fuck they are!
SS: You can do that kind of thing and chase the sales. I don’t know, it’s very easy, but we know that. We’ve had the conversations, sitting around going, ‘You know, we could smash that out.’
NL: Our customers trust our taste and they’re not gonna fall for that. We would look like frauds.
Gary Aspden said something similar with the Spezial collection about how you can’t come at the northern customer with that kind of talk because they’ll see right through you.
NL: Well, those collaborations—Yeezys, Jordans, whatever—they sell in Manchester, they do, but there’s a certain percentage of the people that want to look a certain way and for us that’s what we’re about.
And one of the things that came through for me from the images was speaking about a certain idea of youth.
NL: It’s all Bolton, you know? This is Reebok country. When Reebok was being made in Bolton most of these factories were open. There’s a bit of degradation and the opposites between everything and nothing, open and shuttered. There’s quite a disparity there.
SS: You’ve got to remember this is the working class; coarse fishing is something the lads learn when they’re young and pick it up off their dad’s. Perch, roach, it’s basically just the idea of these young kids that are getting into fishing. It’s massive. It’s just a thing that’s very working class and relatable.
How does that feel for you Alex, is this still something you can relate to and understand?
AH: Yeah, I grew up in the North-East in Vermont and it’s a similar climate and landscape to Bolton and Manchester. South of us in Northern Massachussets and the outer-Boston areas it’s a very post-industrial, cold, dark woodland area. You get off the beaten path on the Hudson River and genuinely, any of these photos could be from there.
SS: This came about because we saw some photos that had been done for Catch Me Daddy, there was this booklet of stills that was released and we saw them and were like, ‘Those pictures are ace; gritty. They had this particular look and feel to them.’ So I managed to get hold of Alex’s phone number, and when he answered the phone and I found out he was American I was freaked out. I couldn’t work it out. Like, that’s mad, how is an American taking pictures like this?
NL: Connected with it, completely.
And Reebok in the States, from what I understand, is much more about the basketball shoes, right?
AH: Yeah, I think in the States we’ve got the skate shoe and that’s really dominated everything. It’s so powerful, we don’t really get the athletic Reebok and New Balance to an extent. The skate shoe has taken a grip over the American youth; DC, Osiris, Etnies, and so on since the ‘90s. As far as trainers go, Reebok is like, my dad’s shoe, it’s what he would wear on the afternoon off work. It’s still definitely a part of my psyche but it feels very different.
And what’s your take on the idea of collaborations on a whole—other than the flashy flashy colours?
SS: They’re only really good if the balance is right. I think sometimes it seems to be just labels scratching each other’s backs. We’ll only really do it if it’s something that we’re into and we want to do. We need some kind of feeling for that product. There’s too many collaborations in general.
NL: When we launched a few weeks back with the bloggers I feel like a lot of people looked at it and went, ‘… it looks like a fucking white Reebok, what’s going on?’ A lot of people expect a collaboration to be something that someone’s coloured in, added all this different bullshit. That’s pretty much exactly the opposite of Oi Polloi, to be honest. To me, collaboration should almost be about a missed opportunity at a time when a shoe first came out. The opportunity for the NPC ii was that white court shoes were just doing so well, so why not do another one that nobody paid attention to the first time around? We just choose something that we wanted the brand to make, whether that’s back in the day or reissues, whatever, something that seems to be missing or something that was amazing back in the day.
SS: It’s super representative of that brand as well. It’s that total feeling of, ‘You’re not doing this anymore. Why not?’
Words by GregK
Photos by Alex Hulsey for Oi Polloi
The second half of this interview is over on GregK’s FCKNYH blog, which you can read here.